The High Season
Every summer Ruthie gave away her house by the sea. During the month of May, she packed and polished. Sneakers were scooped up from their kicked-off positions. Earrings, loose change, buttons were swept off the tops of bureaus. Post-its with phone numbers marooned from their meaning had been thrown away, anything threadbare or worn dumped into one of the summer boxes and sealed with squealing tape. T-shirts had been whisked off the hooks on the backs of bathroom doors, and fragrant chunks of Provençal soaps nestled in blue-and-white bowls by the sinks.
Ruthie knew how to create a house that looked lived-in, but lightly. When her summer tenants walked through the door, they breathed in peace and lemons. In this house no one ever had a sleepless night. No child slammed a door, screaming of injustice. No one was ever sick, or sorrowful, or more than pleasantly tired. Summer was a forever season, and held no pain.
With a fistful of yesterday’s news, she polished the picture window, spotless enough to slam into and raise a bruise. Now she had a better view of her daughter slacking off. In the yard Jem was doing what teenagers do, texting while doing a chore in a halfhearted fashion, loading gear into the truck bed with one hand while her thumb jitterbugged on a screen.
It was the first big weekend of summer, and winter’s trap had sprung. All along the hundred miles of Long Island, from Manhattan to the East End, skeins of highway were traffic-snarled by eight in the morning. On the North Fork families were spilling out, stretching and inhaling after the dawn ride from Manhattan, parents having bawled at their children, still thickheaded with dreams, to pull on shorts and get the hell in the car. Barbecues were rolled out from the garage, convertible tops folded down, beach chairs snapped to.
High above the creeping cars, helicopter blades purled the air as they carried the rich and the lucky to the Hamptons on the South Fork. At the airport drivers waited by dark-windowed SUVs, patiently sipping coffee. Shopkeepers checked inventory on summer-weight cashmere. House managers reviewed details of schedules and flower deliveries to the vast homes behind the hedges.
Ruthie’s renter would arrive at noon. Adeline Clay had paid like a rich person, taking the Beamish-Dutton house for the entire season, and the whopping check was sitting in the bank. By Thanksgiving the money would have disappeared, distributed to various wheezing accounts: the college fund, the taxes due, the unseen needed repairs. But right now Ruthie felt pleasantly, if temporarily, solvent, her feet on a wide-planked floor rubbed with beeswax, the sky bouncing light off the sea. There were a few details left to take care of: one more swipe of the counters, local honey and flowers from the garden to welcome the tenant, a final sweep, and then skedaddling off into their own summer in a rented guesthouse.
“The summer bummer,” Jem called it, because giving up the house in the best months of the year was the only way to keep it.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket. A text from her board president, Mindy Flicker. Mindy had left her Park Avenue apartment earlier in the week to beat the traffic. Ruthie’s phone had been pinging with texts for days. Mindy might not have known what she was talking about, but she was firmly committed to conveying it as often as possible.
IDEA! A bouquet would be super to welcome Adeline Clay
. . .
W a card saying it’s from the Belfry. Do you have a card? I could drop one off.
I buy them in bulk.
Mike came up behind her as she texted All taken care of. As the director of the Belfry Museum, she knew that wealthy board ladies were part of the job. Cosseted as children, driven hard as young women, married off to suitably successful and politically like-minded men, tightly surgeried and whittled down to bone, they could be fierce and admirable or simply awful. Mindy was the latter. She had joined the board three years ago with an excess of sebum and verbiage, and with a combination of big money and a perfect attendance record at meetings, she’d taken over as board president only a year before. Since then, Ruthie’s once pleasant and busy job had turned into a constant battle to deflect Mindy’s more idiotic ideas while flattering her verve. It would be a summer of too many meetings, of texts and surprise visits and hair twirls accompanied by Wouldn’t it be interesting if we . . .
“Mindy,” she said to Mike.
“Can’t you just ignore her?”
“Would you be able to ignore a hyena gnawing on a kidney?”
“Ow.” He put his hands on her shoulders. Once, she would have leaned back against him. “Hey. You did it. The place looks great.”
“World’s perfect,” Ruthie agreed. “Wait. The porch. Did you fix the second step?”
“Ruthie.” The hands dropped.
Even in his weariness, in his mustard-colored T-shirt with the hole near the collar, he had allure. Forty-eight and he looked like a surfer. She was three years younger and looked like his grandmother. Teenage carelessness regarding sunscreen had taken its toll. Skin elasticity was beginning to break down. Middle age had settled into her laugh lines. Any moment now she’d be initiated into the feminine mysteries of the chin wax.
“Do we have time for coffee?”
“We can’t make coffee. The kitchen is clean.”
“She won’t be here for three hours.”
“Don’t bother, Daddy,” Jem said, stuffing shirts into a duffel as she walked. “God forbid we do some actual living in this house. For the past month I’ve had to eat my muffin on the porch.”
“What say we finish loading the truck!” Ruthie suggested in what Jem called her “me-hearties” voice.
Jem settled the duffel on one shoulder and picked up a canvas tote stuffed with last-minute items—books, soap, sandals, a rolled-up pair of shorts, a box of linguine. She’d worn the same aggrieved expression all morning. It was an old fight; at fifteen, Jem had long passed the age where Mike and Ruthie could make a game out of packing up her room to make way for strangers who would eat off her plates and swim off her beach. It was no longer an adventure to stay in a borrowed trailer at a campground, or flop in a garage apartment. Jem was old enough now to realize that a sofa bed was no lark to sleep on.
They watched her go, blond braid swishing, flip-flops snapping a rebuke.
“We had a fight this morning over the bleach,” Ruthie said as soon as the screen door banged. “She promised me she’d help me do the last-minute clean, and she tried to wriggle out of it. Meret wanted her to get a hot wax pedicure.”
“Meret,” Mike muttered. “A fur cup of trouble.”
“A fur cup with toenails.” Jem’s lovely best friend Olivia had moved away a year ago, and Ruthie still bemoaned the day Meret Bell had stopped by Jem’s table in the cafeteria and said, “I like your hair that way.”
“She’ll be okay,” Mike said, watching through the screen as Jem leaned against his pickup, texting furiously. Boxes and suitcases and a broken chair surrounded her in Joad-like fashion. “She’s going through a girly stage.”
“She’s not going through a girly stage, she’s a girl. She’s a girl who thinks she’s a woman.”
“Didn’t Gary Puckett and the Union Gap sing that?”
“You know, it would make me so happy if you’d worry with me.”
Mike sock-skated across the wood floor, heading for his shoes on the porch.
“Sweetie, give me something worthy to worry about, and I can worry with the best of them. I can’t worry about a pedicure. Whereas you like to exist in a fog of general anxiety. Probably why we’re incompatible. Irreconcilable worry patterns.”
“Reason number three hundred and thirty-seven,” Ruthie said, following him to the door. It was an old joke. “Can you pick up Jem after work today? I’ve got Spork prep, and it’s going to be crazy.”
“And you’re not allowed to call me sweetie, remember?”
“Ah, Rules for a Good Divorce. Thank God you remember them or we’d be in worse trouble.”
“Hey. They were just suggestions.”
“You emailed me a list. There were asterisks.” Mike stood at the screen door. Dodge, the artist who lived down the road in the summers, honked and waved from his yellow convertible, yelling something as he went by, most likely “Cocktails!” All summer they would promise to have cocktails together and never do it. Dodge was the new breed of summer renter in Orient; he had a social calendar.
“Every year we watch them come back,” Mike continued, waving at Dodge. “Every year we give up our house. How long can we do this, anyway?”
“This,” Mike said. “Live next to things we can never have. It gets worse every year. Did you see the house they’re renovating over on Orchard? Dave said there’s a home gym and a lap pool. A home gym! It’s a death knell, I’m telling you.”
He gazed out at the bay, a powdery blue today, with a scattering of white sails skittering toward Bug Light. A rainstorm the night before had failed to clear the humidity, and the world had summery blurred edges. “We wouldn’t have to uproot Jem every summer if we sold it. And we’d have money. We’ve got to be at the top of the market right now.”
When they’d sat down to discuss the divorce three years before, child custody had been decided in an exchange of less than ten words (And Jem? We just have to . . . Of course.)—but the house, ah, the house. Marital vows they could abandon, but a shingled house with a water view in an escalating market? They had put everything into the house, they had borrowed and scraped in order to renovate it. It was their version of a hedge fund, held against disaster and college tuition. If everything fell apart, they said, they could sell the house.
Divorce papers were inevitable, but it became an item on an ever-growing to-do list that could have been titled “Things to Ignore for Now.” Divorce needed attorneys and turned amicable separations into expensive fights. They decided, for now, to treat divorce as a state of mind rather than polity. Yes, they were divorced. No, the state of New York didn’t know it yet.
So Ruthie stayed in the house with Jem. Mike had moved into an apartment in the bigger village of Greenport, a few blocks from the hardware store, which was at least handy for a carpenter.
Her phone vibrated again. Mindy, no doubt. She ignored it.
“We should move to Vermont, or Nova Scotia,” Mike said. “To the real country. Where hot wax is on a candle where it belongs, not on your daughter’s toes. Where people think Pilates is next to the Big Dipper. Where they’ve never heard of kale chips.”
“Are we moving to Vermont or 1910?”
“Our town is a barnyard full of hammers and nails,” Mike said. “You can’t walk down a block without hearing a buzz saw. And the storms get worse every year—another Hurricane Sandy moves a degree to the east and we’re finished. How can you time a last chance except by taking it? This could be the moment to cash out.”
“We don’t have enough equity yet,” Ruthie said. “We’re still paying off the loan for the master suite.”
He pressed his lips together the way he always did when she brought up financial reality. He’d grown up as a Dutton, with streets named after his family in Connecticut towns. The fact that his father had run through the money by the time he was twenty should have made him practical, but it only made him less inclined to hear facts.
“She has two years of high school left,” she said. “After that . . .” After that, what? The ellipsis defined the sentence. She didn’t know.
The problem was, she thought they were lucky, and he did not. For Mike, losing the house for three months canceled out having it for nine. For her, it guaranteed it.
This was what she’d never had and what she always craved. Home, she thought. This. Even if she had to leave it in order to afford it, it was hers. This lovely, perfect village, neighbors who knew her, the bluest hydrangeas, the best view on the North Fork. This!
The only thing she missed, she thought, gazing at Mike’s profile, was that.
“Now Jem’s in that rotten crowd, with the pedicures and the purses and you have to wear pajama pants on Thursdays or you can’t sit at the table at lunch . . .” Mike shook his head. “Remember that argument when you bought her the wrong slippers? Like you’d stabbed her. We’re losing her.”
“Of course we’re losing her. She’s a teenager. And we broke up. Don’t you think it’s sort of ludicrous for us to leave town together?”
Mike grinned. “Hey. We’re divorced, but we’re family.”
A spark ignited in that tinderbox that was Ruthie’s heart. It continually infuriated her that Mike was so adept at disarming her.
Which could be reason number two for why they were apart.
Reason number one? He’d decided that he wasn’t in love anymore. (“I don’t need a pal,” he’d said to her. “I need a destiny.”)
“We struggle so much just to keep it all going,” Mike said. “We’re still not happy.”
“That’s why you left, so that we’d all be happy. Remember?”
“Yeah,” said Mike. “Look . . .”
A helicopter passed overhead, not loud enough to drown his voice, but he stopped.
So she obeyed him. She looked. The way he stood, half turned toward her, his hand flat against the screen door, ready to push. A man always half on his way out a door.
“Have dinner with me tomorrow? So we can talk?”
“Talk about . . .”
“I don’t know, a rethink. Really talk.”
The world shut down into quiet. There was something in his face she hadn’t seen in a long time. He was really looking at her, for one thing. So much of the end of a marriage was exchanging information without eye contact. “I’ve got Spork tomorrow.”
“It’s over at five. After we can go to the Drift.”
The Spindrift was the place they jokingly referred to as “the bad news bar,” a local dive where once they had commiserated about disasters over drafts of beer and free hard-boiled eggs and peanuts. Sometimes that was dinner. Tim would slide the jar of mustard down the length of the bar and Mike would catch it in one hand. Outside light would be falling, Jem would be at a friend’s, the twilight would last forever, their kisses would taste of hops and yolk.
“Sure.” The bar is not a signifier, she told herself. It’s just a bar.
Sound rushed in. Tires crunching over gravel. Adeline Clay swung down the driveway in her Range Rover, three hours early.